A surprisingly sprightly tour d’horizon of the pursuit of fusion energy, from Science deputy news director Clery.
Fusion is all, writes the author: “Every atom in your body, apart from the hydrogen, was created by fusion in a long-dead star.” If fission is the evil twin, then fusion is what we want as a source of energy: the melding of two nuclei to make a larger one, producing heat as a byproduct—without the wealth of other nasty byproducts that fission leaves in its wake. However, at the same time, the nuclei repel each other, unless under terrific pressure. We have not even achieved a break-even point yet: More energy is pumped into provoking the reaction than is produced, and plasma’s notorious instabilities have made it too furtive to harness. Clery walks readers through the history of fusion study, from Lord Kelvin, Albert Einstein and a large cast of peculiar physicists, to all manner of international politics—e.g., the darts and feints of the Cold War, the braces applied by OPEC in the wake of the 1973 war among Israel, Egypt and Syria. Clery negotiates the hard science with aplomb, though there are times when it takes considerable focus to follow the proceedings: “In a tokamak, the horizontal toroidal field and vertical poloidal field combine to produce helical magnetic field lines.” Yet even such dark matter slowly becomes accessible, and both the promise and the pity of fusion take shape. Clery taps into the whirlwind of excitement around cold fusion, the give and take of public funding to fusion research, and the frustrations that jeopardize that work—for example, $450 million going to the National Ignition Facility to “investigate why there was a divergence between simulations and measured performance.”
A compelling case for continued, even increased, fusion research.